Monday, June 18, 2012

Claveria diving 3.2, We dive the Beach

Me, just off Claveria Beach
It was our third day of diving, although it was questionable if we would use the rest of it to actually dive since we had spent so much time getting all our tanks refilled at the Terra Rika Beach and Dive Resort. By the time we returned from the resort, located well down the coast near the town of Pagudpud, it was already late afternoon.

Don and I talked about whether we should dive or not while taking a walk down the beach to watch a group of more than a dozen locals pulling in a gigantic drag net. Over the years, since he’s been going up there on occasional motorcycle trips, he’s become very familiar with the drag net process. He explained that the owners of the humongous nets get half the profit from each catch, while the rest is divvied up between the boat crew and the able bodied band of “heave ho’ers.”
As we observed the net slowly being pulled in, we agreed that we would indeed do a dive off the beach. Once we came to that conclusion Don had taken off back to the hotel to start getting ready while I stuck around for another 25 minutes to continue to watch the Claverians go about their fish catching endeavor; I really wanted to see the results of all their activity.
Ready to dive the waters off Claveria Bay Beach

There was a lot of joking and chattering as they worked. Two teams pulled from the beach; each responsible for their half of the net. I’m not sure what the bangka boat crew’s job was after taking the net out to sea and spreading it parallel to the shoreline, perhaps to keep an eye on it from the sea. I did see a couple fellows in the water wearing swim masks whose job I assume was to make sure the net didn’t get fouled. Perhaps they were part of the boat crew as well.

I can’t emphasize how sprawling these drag nets are. When they are set at their furthest from the beach waterline, their topside buoys marking the boundary of its coverage form a gigantic semicircle that seems to cover about an acre. Basically, each net acts as an underwater monofilament fence some ten or fifteen feet high and hundreds of feet long. The bottom edge is kept on the seafloor with lead weights while the top is kept at the surface with flotation buoys.
Pulling drag nets in on Claveria Beach
The net pulling, already slow, became even slower the closer the center of the buoys approached, the area enclosed by them becoming inexorably smaller. I assume the slower going was due to the weight of the fish being forced into the giant sack at the very center of the net. Actually, until the net was at last pulled completely in I wasn't aware that the center catch bag even existed.

When it was at last pulled up onto the beach, only partially filled with wriggling fish, I realized then that the primary purpose of the net is not to actually catch fish but to cause them to swim along it until they finally enter the bulging sack at the center where they become trapped.
Raining hard as we start our dive

When the sack of fish at the net’s center was finally dragged up to dry sand the result was totally anticlimactic. I couldn’t tell for sure, but all told there were probably more than a hundred fish in the sack, but none were even half as large as one of my dimunitive hands. I felt embarrassed for these hardworking folks that looked to me to be mostly housewives, kids, and old men. Surely they would throw all those tiny juvenile fish back in to let them grow? But no, Don assured me that every single one was destined for the cooking pot.

My curiosity satisfied while leaving a bad taste in my mouth, I hurried back up the beach to the hotel knowing that Don was already preparing his gear for our agreed upon dive. Within a half hour we were both suited up and in the gravel parking lot at the center of the “resort,” together marrying up our tanks and BCDs. For that dive he decided to experiment by using his mini tank while assigning me one of our two big 100s versus one of our more numerous 80s. I’m pretty sure the 80 and 100 numbers mark the capacity of the tank, in this case in cubic feet. I don’t recall what capacity his little stubby tank is; if I had to guess, I’d say it is a 40 or a 50.
Don's "stubby" tank

Our strategy with the tanks was for me to use as little air pressure as possible so that we would have much of it in reserve later if needed, and since we knew the water probably wasn’t that deep off the beach then he should easily get in a full dive with the stubby tank.  As long as one doesn’t go very deep then a tank of air will last quite some time. Go below 30 feet though and it goes a lot quicker.

Typical of the weather in the far north of the Philippines, a storm suddenly blew in as we shrugged into our gear for the walk down the steps and through the 100 meters of sand to the waterline. Once in the water we stayed on snorkel to save air pressure, keeping an eye on the bottom as we made our way out on the surface. Staring at the sterile sand below, just as I suspected from knowing what the years of dragging nets across it must have wrought, the bottom looked flat and dead, totally unpromising. We hoped it would be otherwise, but how could it after all those years of abuse? We saw exactly the same thing last year during our very first dive in an area off a similar beach around the corner from Claveria Bay’s eastern point, namely—nothing. I wrote a piece about that dive and called it “The Dead Zone.”
"The dead zone" except for crab at bottom middle

We had to go a long way out before the bottom began to show any real depth; I’d say we were way past 500 meters out before it even appeared to reach more than 20 feet below us. Finally, we were so far out that we just decided to stop and go on down. When we got to the bottom our computers only showed 25 feet, and what we saw from the top is what we saw down there—literally nothing.

Following our compasses we continued along the bottom heading out to sea looking for anything at all that might indicate that any life dwelled out there whatsoever. Occasionally we’d hear the disconcerting sound of a motor churning overhead when a bangka boat would speed by within 50 meters or so. Even though we were well below any danger from the whirling propellers and mashing hull, it always caused me to pause and peer upwards trying to find it. It’s nearly impossible to tell sound direction in the water so if I found it scooting above on the surface it was always because I caught sight of it. We talked about using a diver down device but that would have been worthless considering that no one would know what such a thing is.

Our depth never reached greater than 30 feet and we probably would have had to go another quarter mile out to reach more than 40 feet I’m thinking.
We saw this piece of wood in the distance

Suddenly Don veered off to the right. Looking out beyond him at his destination of travel I spotted what he was angling towards, it appeared to be a dark piece of wood. We were so bored with the constant bland sight of sand and the blueness of the water that the singular sight of the foot long piece of water logged wood was like a visual beacon for us.

When we got there and I saw it was just a piece of old waterlogged driftwood I immediately lost interest, turning away to see what else might be in sight. A second later I heard Don make his “Hey” sound into his regulator to catch my attention. I turned around and saw him closely examining a single tiny dark fish resting on the sand near the wood where he had overturned it. I felt sorry for the little fish; he looked so lonely in that vast expanse of nothingness.
Don turned it over and....

Funny thing is it seems that the little fellow truly was lonely, because as Don moved away a few feet the fish moved to a position between his fins. Losing sight of the fish Don turned to look for his new little buddy and the fish took a new position under his thigh. I continually pointed at the fish as it changed location to keep my dive buddy up to snuff on where his tiny friend was. We moved slightly further away and still the little lonely heart followed. Poor little fella, out in the middle of nowhere and all by himself.  I’m certain that the only reason it hadn’t been swooped up yet in one of those massive drag nets is because of its hidey hole under that piece of wood. Eventually though, once it gets up to greater than a couple inches it WILL inevitably get swept up.
.... from under it, out popped this little guy
Lonely little guy insisted on hanging out with us....
See you little fellow! Good luck!
It was a depressing sight, seeing the damage done by years and years of nets dragging across the sand. They not only overfish the waters to the point that there are no more fish of any size to speak of but they’ve destroyed almost every vestige of life on the sea bottom. About the only other living creatures we saw down there were some light colored little catfish flitting about in a group of 5 or 6, along with a couple of sneaky side walking crabs, which skittered away from me like crazy whenever I tried to approach to film them.
not much alive down there, found a crab though

It was easy making our way back to the shore; once I realized that the sand ripples form parallel to the beach, all we had to do was swim perpendicularly to them. When we came to the surface in four feet of water we were still a hundred yards from shore. We took our time coming in as we enjoyed the beautiful sunset as it fell behind Claveria’s pyramid rocks. It wasn't the greatest dive as far as sightseeing goes, but no matter, I always enjoy them just the same.
At the end of the day and the end of the dive

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